Psych is a great TV show, but we haven’t had a good chance to talk about it because the bad guys are regular crooks and the main character isn’t actually psychic. But the plot of this week’s episode—like a recent episode of Castle—pushed things into our territory by introducing a “real-life superhero” into the mix. Significant spoilers ahead!
Psych‘s real-life superhero calls himself The Mantis, and basically operates like Batman. He uses martial arts skills to take out criminals without using lethal force. Since he goes after drug dealers, leaving the criminals tied up at the scene with the incriminating evidence (and their fingerprints all over it) may even be sufficient to get them convicted despite the Mantis being unavailable to testify. And this is a good thing, since if any of the people the Mantis attacked weren’t breaking the law then he would be facing charges of false arrest and assault.
On its face this sounds pretty good—and he certainly has admirers in the Santa Barbara Police Department—but is he breaking any laws? Three possible issues jump out at us: trespass, the use of force, and arrest formalities.
The drug deals that the Mantis disrupts are done on private property. Does the fact that the Mantis has reason to believe that felonies are being committed there excuse his trespass? It’s possible, but it’s a hard one to justify. On the tort side, it’s not really a private emergency, as the Mantis has no personal need to trespass.
On the criminal side, the defense of necessity may not fit. In California, the defense of necessity is very limited. The defendant must show “that he violated the law (1) to prevent a significant and imminent evil, (2) with no reasonable legal alternative, (3) without creating a greater danger than the one avoided, (4) with a good faith belief that the criminal act was necessary to prevent the greater harm, (5) with such belief being objectively reasonable, and (6) under circumstances in which he did not substantially contribute to the emergency.” People v. Verlinde, 100 Cal.App.4th 1146, 1164-65 (2002). At the very least it could be argued that the Mantis should have called the police first and only intervened if it appeared that the drug dealers were about to leave the scene. The “objectively reasonable” part of the test is also problematic. The Mantis would have to convince a jury that any reasonable person would have done what he did, not just that he thought it was reasonable. That’s a tall order.
There is another possibility: the exigent circumstances doctrine. Normally, exigent circumstances are an exception to the Fourth Amendment requirement that the police get a warrant before entering a home or other property. It isn’t clear to us whether the doctrine can excuse trespass by a private citizen about to make a citizen’s arrest in California, but at least one other state (Texas), has held that it applies to private citizens the same as police: “A private person can do what a police officer standing in his shoes can legitimately do, but cannot do what a police officer cannot do.” Miles v. State, 241 S.W.3d 28, 39 (Tex. Ct. Crim. App. 2007). This would still require a showing that the drug dealers were likely to flee or destroy evidence, but that’s not too high of a burden compared to necessity.
II. The Use of Force
The Mantis often uses stealth to sneak up on a criminal and knock him out. Is this a justified use of force? Since he acts first, it’s clearly not self-defense, but as a private citizen he is entitled to use reasonable force to effect an arrest or prevent a crime. People v. Fosselman, 33 Cal.3d 572, 579 (1983) (en banc); Cal. Penal Code § 692. Given that the criminals are armed and actively engaged in a crime while the Mantis is unarmed, it’s arguable that striking first and without warning is reasonable under the circumstances.
III. Arrest Formalities
Ordinarily, California law requires that “The person making the arrest must inform the person to be arrested of the intention to arrest him, of the cause of the arrest, and the authority to make it.” Cal. Penal Code § 841. But there is an exception: “except when the person making the arrest has reasonable cause to believe that the person to be arrested is actually engaged in the commission of or an attempt to commit an offense.” Id. We could call this the “I’m pretty sure you know why I’m arresting you” exception.
Finally, “A private person who has arrested another for the commission of a public offense must, without unnecessary delay, … deliver him or her to a peace officer.” Cal. Penal Code § 847(a). The Mantis meets this requirement as well, since he alerts the police whenever he makes a bust (or at least they show up promptly enough that he doesn’t need to).
The Mantis’s modus operandi more or less comports with the law, so it makes sense that the police didn’t try too hard to stop him, at least until he (wrongly) became a murder suspect.
(One last thing to mention: the Mantis stealing the drug dealers’ money was, indeed, a crime because the money was still the drug dealers’ property, at least until the state seizes it as proceeds of a crime.)